Is technology killing maternal instincts

While I was gearing up to move house recently, my sister prepared to deliver her first child. Perfect timing, I thought. As I packed and purged, I set aside clothes, toys and assorted things my two kids have outgrown, which might come in handy for her.

In the process, I marvelled at the amount of money we have wasted on items which we have never used.

There was a nail clipper for babies with a built-in magnifying glass.

There was a nipple guard with perforations which enabled mums to breastfeed without feeling the pain from baby's endless suckling.

There were several boxes of bottle teats - approved by orthodontists, no less - which claimed to prevent colic.

I can now laugh at our naivete. When you are new to parenthood, you are game - no, desperate - to try anything which promises to make life easier.

Canny retailers are only too happy to cash in on this vulnerability with ever more inventions.

Last month, British consumer watchdog Which? released a list of 10 least useful baby products after polling 2,005 parents with children under the age of five.

Money suckers which made the list include the swaddling blanket, nappy disposal bin, diaper stacker and baby hammock.

These are souped-up designs that purport to specialise in a function which can be performed just as well by a simpler (and often cheaper) substitute. They are, in a word, redundant.

For example, a nappy disposal bin, which promises to wrap each diaper to lock away germs and odours, can cost more than $50. The cheaper alternative is to simply plonk soiled nappies into disposable bags or a common step-bin.

But wait, there are far more ridiculous kiddy products out there.

The Huffington Post drew up its own list last year and mocked, among other things, a baby poop alarm - "Right, because you might miss the smell", read its sarcastic caption.

There are plenty of practical things which parents can't live without, of course. Baby monitors - both the audio and video versions - were among the list of 10 most useful items compiled by Which? magazine.

Several years ago, I read with amazement reports about a new gadget which claimed to be able to answer the question that has stumped parents since Adam and Eve: "Why is my baby crying?"

By analysing the energy, frequency, pitch, breathing and cycle of a baby's cry, the Why Cry baby monitor can supposedly tell whether he is stressed, annoyed, bored, sleepy or hungry. Wow.

Parenting experts were not too impressed, though. British social anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger said then: "It may provide some answers and some immediate observations that are useful, but it would be an awful thing to depend on.

"Parents need to focus on the baby and see what is happening... Because if you don't learn what your baby is trying to say when he is crying, you are in for trouble later on."

Therein lies the irony which plagues modern parents. We have at our disposal an unprecedented wealth of child-rearing knowledge, devices and resources. Yet, the more aid we have, the more fearful, helpless and incompetent we seem to become.

As newfangled gadgets become the norm rather than a novelty, parents appear to be relying more on technology than on what has kept the human race going thus far: natural instincts and powers of observation.

My mum can tell with one palm to my kids' foreheads roughly how high a fever is. Me, I would be scrambling for the digital thermometer.

And I remember panicking the day our blender broke down as we were preparing my son's lunch. At about seven months then, he had just moved on to eating solid food. I simply did not trust that I could manually mash up the boiled pumpkin and carrots into a sufficiently pureed form which would not choke him to death.

But I did a decently mushy job, he had an uneventful if messy meal, and we will celebrate his seventh birthday later this month.

Experts fear the new generation of baby monitors and gadgets could accelerate the erosion of maternal instincts.

Like health trackers for adults, there are now devices which you can attach to your baby's clothes to monitor his heart rate, breathing patterns, temperature, body position, as well as the conditions of his environment.

The Owlet Smart Sock, for example, velcros to a baby's ankle, so parents can check his vital signs, including oxygen levels and temperature, via a smartphone app. They will also receive alerts if the child rolls over - to allay fears of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Priced at US$250 (S$313), the smart bootie is open for pre-orders and will launch in summer.

Privacy and security concerns aside - do you really want to give unknown third parties access to your kid's health details? - these super trackers also raise the question of whether parents are obsessing over hard data more than simply observing their soft, gurgling babies.

As Dr Wendy Sue Swanson, an American paediatrician, put it bluntly on her blog, Seattle Mama Doc: "It's better to look up at the sky to know if it's raining than to consult the weather report on your iPhone."

We all want to do right by our children, but we also have to accept that we aren't going to get it right all the time.

In a column for The Huffington Post last year, Dr Claire McCarthy, a paediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital, wrote: "Part of being a parent is figuring out how to handle not knowing everything that is happening every single second."

Technology can be a boon, of course (I'm eternally grateful for electric breast pumps and bottle sterilisers).

But she cautioned: "It's really important that technology not get in the way of common sense - or learning good parenting instincts. Because in parenthood, as in life, common sense and good instincts will get you much further than any technology ever could."

If only we could bottle common sense and finely honed instincts - that would be a priceless addition to the Jubilee Baby Gift pack for Singaporeans born next year.

This article was first published on June 1, 2014.
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